AUDIO & VIDEO MYSTERIES

A few final thoughts about file formats for audio and video and how that affects a Vista Media Center Extender. This is the place where strong people are humbled and the whole project can be brought down with screams of frustration. I can only touch on a few of the myriad details.

There is a single overriding principle that you can put to use right away: make a conscious effort to avoid any file format that is locked up with any DRM (digital rights management, the schemes used with “licensed” content to prevent you from making full use of it), or that is even capable of a DRM layer. Don’t buy songs from iTunes in Apple’s proprietary AAC format, which can’t be played in many places; instead, buy MP3 files from Amazon, which can be played absolutely everywhere. Set your audio software to rip CDs in MP3 format and throw away files in other formats from well-meaning friends. Here’s a recent article that describe’s one person’s frustrating encounters with DRM-laden media files.

You can get a sense of how quickly this area gets ugly if you look into how many different formats there are for music, and how strongly people hold opinions about them. There are uncompressed formats that are more or less well supported (WAV, FLAC, OGG VORBIS), there are many competing formats for compressed audio (with and without DRM), and there are ways to compress MP3 files that result in terrible sound quality. I wrote some notes about music files here and I’ve worked hard to be sure that my library is 100% high-bitrate MP3s. If you have other formats in your music library (especially songs from the iTunes store), assume that you will have trouble playing them in Vista Media Center, much less an Extender in the living room.

Working with video is exponentially worse than audio. There is no accepted standard, no format that is a safe guarantee. Your camcorder will record files in a format that you likely didn’t think about when you bought it and you have no way to be sure what will be required to play it on your own computer, much less in the living room. I’ll throw out a few of the details that I ran into, but it’s just a taste of what lies ahead.

There are several programs that rip DVDs to your hard drive in their native format, with all the files in the VIDEO_TS folder. Most of them will compress a dual-layer DVD into 4.7Gb, the size of a single-layer DVD. In this age of huge, cheap hard drives, it makes sense to create a library of entire DVDs on a big hard drive to have the best video quality when movies are played back, plus continued access to menus, special features, and chapters. Oddly, Vista Media Center won’t display those DVDs (“folder is empty”) until the registry is hacked per these instructions, at which point it displays a lovely DVD Gallery.

I put a 750Gb hard drive in my new Dell Inspiron and started ripping DVDs, using Nero Recode (and AnyDVD, which is required to unlock commercial DVDs). I brought the Vista Media Center DVD Gallery to life and looked at blank spaces where thumbnails ought to be until I manually found the cover art for each DVD online and copied the file as folder.jpg into the parent folder for each DVD. (J River Media Center will display a thumbnail for the DVDs if the folder.jpg file is in the VIDEO_TS folder, not the parent. Sigh.) I still think that’s a good choice for assembling a movie collection that will be played back on a computer.

But then I got the Extender and – no DVDs! The Vista Media Center interface didn’t have the DVD Gallery icon and the Extender claimed the folders were empty when I browsed to them. J River Media Center displayed the names but greyed them out as if they were inaccessible.

Much research ensued before I learned that Vista Media Center Extenders have been crippled so they cannot play DVDs in their native format under any conditions, presumably the result of a compromise to satisfy the dark lords in the movie studios. A separate DVD player is required in the living room to play a disc and there just isn’t any way to stream a DVD from a computer through an Extender.

Converting movies is a science and a black art. A comparatively new format, H.264, is gaining acceptance as the “one true format,” in Paul Thurrott’s words, for high quality in a reasonable file size – roughly 1.5Gb for a two-hour movie. I had already found out that Nero’s version of MPEG-4 (which is but isn’t the same as H.264) has some funky proprietary issues, so I did more research and bought a copy of DVDFab to convert DVDs to a generic H.264 format, creating files with AVI extensions. I merrily proceeded down that path for a week or so, ripping movies right and left, before I realized that Vista Media Center Extenders can’t play H.264 files either. Oh, I’m still not sure of the details of that – they don’t play in the Vista Media Center interface or in the J River Media Center interface, but they sometimes play in the HP Videos section of the Extender, probably just to be malicious and mess with me. But clearly it isn’t a universal format, at least not yet.

At the moment, I’m using DVDFab to rip DVDs to XVid format, which also results in files with AVI extensions because this wasn’t confusing enough already. If you’re trying this at home, these settings produce high-quality XVid videos that can be played on a Vista Media Center Extender: Mobile setting generic.avi.xvid.audiocopy; high quality encoding (2-pass); fixed bitrate 1200kbps; frame resolution roughly 768 x something.

Thanks for coming along with me into the living room! I’ll return to your office now, where I belong. Good luck with your home theater!